Why U2 Matters, Part II


To the brood: My apologies for the delay in submitting the second part of this four-part series. I had initially intended to publish these entries on a weekly basis, but alas proverbial roadblocks associated with my day job as a journalist have proven significant.

Consider that arguing U2’s relevance in a largely irrelevant music industry, where cookie-cutter hits continue their two-decade assault on mainstream pop, requires more than a quick offering halfheartedly written because high school football and public corruption (I cover the South Texas area…enough said) were still on the mind.

This is an important time in the band’s history. It’s U2 against the world…of idiots. And the vocal majority is as loud as its ever been. As addressed in my initial piece, Bono, The Edge, Larry and Adam have been subjected to ridicule and criticism for what could arguably be chalked up to the price of innovation. Love it or hate it, releasing an album – the instant-classic Songs of Innocence – that automatically downloads into 500 million iTunes users’ iCloud accounts was a trailblazing move.

What the haters can never understand is that U2’s propensity to take risks, which nobody else in the same position would dare take, is also what happens to make the band great. This is an alien concept to the likes of Ozzy Osbourne and the Black Keys, who rarely venture beyond their musical comfort zones. Though attributed to many people, I believe it was Elbert Hubbard who was credited with saying, “To avoid criticism, do nothing, say nothing, and be nothing.”

Diehard fans understand that this is the essence of U2’s tendency to throw caution to the wind all in the name of transcending genres and modern technology. This is the band that debuted a tour boasting the largest television screen ever built when just several years earlier they strutted on stage with little more than their gear and the house lights. The end result was always the same though: pure awesomeness. This is also the band that embraced punk and new wave in the earlier incarnation of the group before maturing into a proper rock outfit, and also before exploring American rhythm and blues; alternative; EDM; techno; soul; etc. But hey…the end result was always the same: pure awesomeness.

And this brings me to what not only makes Songs of Innocence a fantastic entry in the band’s legendary catalog, but why U2 still matters.

I was a teenager in the mid 1990s when I first decided to listen to U2. Not unlike the 2000 film “Almost Famous,” in which a pre-adolescent boy finds his sister’s record collection upon her moving away from home, I had also inherited my brother’s collection of vinyl records and audio cassette tapes in much the same way. Though treasures such as Led Zeppelin’s III and The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band were all at my beckoning, it was The Joshua Tree that called out to me.

I previously hadn’t heard much of U2, except for the time when my brother and I watched Zoo TV: Live from Sydney on pay-per-view. With memories of “Pride” still fresh in my mind, coupled with the minimalist album artwork featuring a black and white snapshot of the four bandmates casually standing around in a desert, I gave The Joshua Tree a whirl.

As an opening track, “Where the Streets Have No Name” sounded odd for a young man who grew up on a heavy dose of hair metal and grunge. Accustomed to singers’ exaggerated screams and howls, guitarists’ obligatory solos and the forgettable contributions of muted rhythm sections, I was shocked upon my first true exposure to U2.

A church organ crescendo, time signature changes and melodic guitar riffs that sounded more like the chiming of bells than rip-roaring shreds…wait, what is this? The bass and percussion work resembled a speeding locomotive more than an actual beat and the vocals pleaded instead of shrilled. Then there were the lyrics…oh the lyrics.

After hearing the gospel songs that followed and the preachy message in 10 of its 11 tunes, I came to the conclusion that I hated it.

Still, this was my brother’s music, and I held his taste in the highest regard. So, confused but positive that I was missing something, I played it again and again until I couldn’t stop playing it (ala Mr. Holland’s Opus).

C’mon, trainspotters…you know what I’m talking about…John Coltrane anybody?

Well, I digress.

What I discovered was that it was necessary to mature as a listener before I could ever be moved by U2’s music, and by extension…U2’s spirit. Because that’s what the band represents – an entity from which faith is necessary to believe in something; and it also happens to be why a growingly-secular world can no longer understand or support four men that openly worship and praise God.

Remember this, friends, before pitying Bono for humbling himself to some ingrate: U2’s meant to incur the wrath of a world that hates.

Recently, readers have been gracious enough to compliment my writing style. After blushing disagreeably, I remind them that my goal is to be as eclectic a storyteller as U2 are as musicians.

I want to be a writer whose body of work also inspires people. This is why I do what I do, and I’ve since won first and second place awards in news writing in the Texas Press Association Better Newspaper Contest. My work with the San Benito News, which is based in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas, has been followed by the likes of The Huffington Post and caught the eye of gubernatorial candidates as well as state and federal elected officials.

I’m not saying that I necessarily owe my career to U2, especially since I put my faith and family above all, but it is simply an example of why the band still matters in this writer’s heart.

Note: Michael Rodriguez is a journalist who hails from a border community in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas, where he serves as the managing editor of the semi-weekly newspaper, the San Benito News. Part 3 of his series, “Why U2 Matters,” will include his review of the vinyl and deluxe editions of Songs of Innocence.